Thursday, May 26, 2005

The make poverty history president?

Tony Giddens asked the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, the question everyone wanted to ask: why did he and John Kerry lose the election and what must the Democrats do to take power again?

Edwards was at the LSE, presenting a lecture on ‘The New Egalitarianism’ which is also the title of a new book co-edited by Giddens. The Third Way rides again!

The actual content of Edwards’ speech was unimpressive. He stressed the importance of co-operation at both national and international levels resting on four pillars: a strong US-EU relationship, measures to fight poverty, dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons and promoting liberty and democracy.

Poverty seems to be the Edwards theme. Later I discussed with a friend the merits of him picking that as his specialist subject. He didn’t think it suitable since it was unlikely he could affect much in the way of change. I disagreed; as a part time lecturer at the University of North Carolina he’s associated with the creation of a research centre to analyse the causes and effects of poverty. That should give him some credibility when he next runs for national office compared to last year when he was picked as Kerry’s running mate.

He extolled the merits of the various anti-poverty measures in the UK, citing the baby bond scheme and various tax credits to help the family. This sounded to me as if he had already had a meeting with Gordon Brown. As if that wasn’t enough, the British goals for the EU presidency seemed to have filtered into his consciousness as well, since he also emphasised the need to address the challenges faced in Africa, and especially Sudan.

Edwards was far better on the questions than the content and delivery of his speech. Why was that? Partly it was because he was better dealing with the tangible, less with the philosophical. Both in his lecture and in the question and answer session he constantly cited moral considerations for tackling inequality and poverty; in his eyes it was the ‘right thing’ to do. As far as I could tell, he didn’t have anything more substantial in which to back up his case.

I also think he was better at the questions because of his time as a lawyer. He was sharp and quick to respond, even on the questions which seemed tricky. For instance he was asked how far he would be personally prepared to spread democracy to which he responded by saying the US shouldn’t impose it, but work with other democracies to encourage peoples in undemocratic states towards that goal. When pressed on the inconsistency between free trade and inequality, he fell back on his campaign support for US farm subsidies while pointing out that a range of different solutions would need to be pursued.

But whereas we were all starting to flag in what are extremely uncomfortable seats in the Old Theatre, he kept pointing at additional questioners. In fact Giddens had to beg him to stop as he had another meeting to go to.

Some of the questioners wanted to have a pop at the senator. One older man criticised Edwards for his rose-tinted view of American ideals (oh yes, there was a lot of that in his speech) which hardly seemed to equate with the discrimination that many had faced in the American South, even as recently as the 1950s and 1960s. Edwards was disarming and won the audience over, by pointing out in his own southern drawl that he grew up in the thick of it while he assumed the gentleman had only read about it in books. Then he took responsibility for it and argued his political life had been spent challenging those prejudices. Another challenged him on American treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. He didn’t back away from it, admitting culpability and the need to act more justly in the future.

Indeed, Edwards seems to have the air of a man who is not dwelling on the past, but thinking of the future. And this brings me back to Giddens’s original question. When confronted with why the Democrats lost in 2004, Edwards was disinclined to answer. That was for the pundits, he claimed. What he thought mattered above all was leadership. And leadership is based on principles and core values and a commitment to improve people’s lives; an idealistic tone on which to end the afternoon. But will it be enough in 2008, perhaps in a campaign headed by Edwards himself? Perhaps, but only if his gamble – becoming identified closely with this anti-poverty agenda – works and offers an effective counter-argument to Republicans’ tax cut incentives.

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